Thursday 7 December 2023

Shieldwalls and Sorcery

The furniture of D&D is high medieval Europe, but tonally, it is a Western. The PCs are not medieval Europeans who are buried beneath complex layers of rank and status and bound by chains of obligation. They are rugged individuals wrestling with the world one-on-one: they are pioneers, not peasants. 

This is the case for two obvious reasons: the authors were American, and anyway it also just works better that way. There's a reason why Ars Magica or Harnmaster are less popular games (as good as they are on their own terms). And there is no particular problem here - in the end, the gap between default setting assumptions and the style of play hardly matter in practice, as generation upon generation of D&D players have proved.

Still, it remains the case that actually by default it probably makes more sense for the standard D&D setting to be more like the European Dark Ages* - a time of great upheaval, generalised collapse, and consequent freedom from social bonds not exactly like North America circa 1650-1850, but not exactly unlike it either. In Europe one had the retreat of the Roman Empire, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. In North America one had the collapse of pre-Columbian civilisations, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. There are of course huge differences between the two situations, but there is a similar mood music. Everything is in a state of flux, a new world waits to be born, and for a brief moment it feels as though almost anything is possible.

This makes the Beowulf period particularly fruitful as a template, as commenters on a recent entry here observed. Anglo-Saxon England (okay, Beowulf is technically set in Scandinavia) is almost the Dark Ages in microcosm - all of themes are there, from retreating Rome to barbarian invaders - and everything was gloriously kaleidoscopic and patchwork (see below for a map); this was a world in which a story like Beowulf, in which a brave adventurer just goes off and fights a monster to win fame and glory, makes perfect sense. 

Shieldwalls & Sorcery, then, is a workable concept, not as a faithful representation of historical fact, but as a kind of Yoon-Suinization of that period. Here is what I am thinking, in bullet point form:

  • When people think of Dark Ages England, they tend to instinctively take the sides of the Celts, who are the underdogs, and have the inherently appealing figure of King Arthur on their side. Shieldwalls & Sorcery, though, should have the Anglo-Saxons equivalents as the focus: they are the adventuring pioneers who have come to win fame and fortune in a strange foreign land; that's therefore who the PCs should be. 
  • This means that the native Celt-stand-ins should be stereotypically Celtic, dialled up to 11. They like sinister magic and hiding in misty forests and fens; they engage in weird sex cult rituals; they go in heavily for human sacrifice; they consort with elves and worship weird gods; they are unpredictable and fiery and given to fits of melancholia and strange flights of fancy; they are maudlin but good musicians. (All very much like a typical Saturday night in Glasgow.) They are antagonists.
  • This is historically probably wrong, because the native Celtic Britons received Christianity before the Anglo-Saxons did, but in my not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages setting it seems to make more aesthetic sense to imagine the Anglo-Saxons as the Christians, or pseudo-Christians, who have a sense that they are engaged in some sort of good vs evil struggle. This is important, because it allows me to bring in...
  • ....the idea that not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages is also populated by the Sons of Cain; different categories of monstrous enemy birthed by the murder of Abel and roaming the Earth ever since.
  • There are therefore different intersecting imaginable campaign styles here - the PCs as pioneers exploring a brave new world and winning renown; the PCs as adventurers raiding the ruins of the not-actually-Roman-Empire that has now receded; the PCs as paladins smiting the Sons of Cain and heathen elf-loving Celts; the PCs as protectors of their people, newly arrived from beyond the sea; and so on.
  • I want to reimagine D&D's classes accordingly. What would not-actually-Anglo-Saxon character classes be? Fighter, yes. Cleric, yes. But the uses of magic and druidry feel as though they should be the preserve of the Celts. Could a reconceptualised Bard be a replacement?

*We're told by historians that this is a misconception, blah blah, and that we are supposed to call it the Early Medieval Period or somesuch. Fuck off, historians.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Syncretic D&D, Or, the Shoe That Does Not Drop

And compensation, a price in gold, was settled for the Geat Grendel had cruelly killed earlier— as he would have killed more, had not mindful God and one man's daring prevented that doom.

-Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

Paging through the AD&D corpus and thinking about what it all has to say about religion, one is struck by two things. The first is the very high degree of syncretism on display. The creators invented many of their own species of (usually polytheistic) religious belief, and these are mixed in with real-world religions that are typically dead (so that, for instance, the Outer Planes are thought to be home to a variety of 'pantheons' such as the Greek, Chinese, Babylonian, Finnish, Egyptian and so on). And at the same time, of course, individual DMs who invent their own campaign settings merrily create their own systems of religion to sit alongside all of these others, also. If one stops to really think about it, this is suggestive of a vast galaxy of unrelated religions all existing together, and none of which being Truer than any of the others or being able to make a plausible universal Truth claim.

From a theological perspective the oddness of this is breezily waved aside in the source material - why wouldn't there be Finnish and orcish gods living alongside one another in the multiverse? - and, phenomenologically, the ordinary inhabitants of that multiverse see no nice distinctions: gods are gods and exert power in basically the same way, by granting spells to clerics and so on and so forth. And obviously at ground level most people, who never stray more than ten miles from their birthplace, have no conception of any of this anyway - their religion is their religion and that's that. Maybe they have some dim awareness that the local goblin tribe worships some specific deity which is different to their own, and maybe they even recognise that deity to have some real-world power and influence (and might even come to adopt it as their own if it is revealed to have more power and influence than the god their ancestors traditionally worship). But they're not worried about how it is supposed to all make sense.

The other thing that strikes one, however, is the shoe that doesn't drop - there is no explicit mention of Christianity (or Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other modern living religion) in canonical AD&D, for all that the religion is clearly latent within it. The cleric, who banishes undead and splashed around holy water while waving a holy symbol, obviously derives from basically Christian motifs and stereotypes about exorcists and inquisitors; many of the monsters - especially the undead - only really make sense as monsters when founded on a basis of Christian folk belief (which holds that coming back from the dead is intrinsically evil, as opposed to something that happens once a year when the ancestors come home for dinner, or whatever); the devils and demons clearly use the iconography of medieval Christian ideas about hell; and so on. It is almost as though there is an implied Christianity in the typical D&D world lurking in the background, (one could widen this out and say an implied Abrahamic faith), which is unable to fully express itself but which is hinted at at every turn.

I know very well why the creators of AD&D never inserted Jehovah, or Allah, or whatever, into their fictional multiverse - they didn't want to piss people off. But given the standard approach to theological matters (basically that any and every religion that one could think of can exist and has actual divine power), and taking that approach on its own terms, then surely the God of the Abrahamic faiths must also be subject to the same rationale on a 'sauce for the gander' basis. There is not, I mean to say, any principled reason as to why the Finnish or orcish (or whatever) god are 'real' within AD&D world, but the Christian God is not.

Following through on this idea would have interesting ramifications. First, it opens the door to a Beowulf-inflected syncretism, in which old pagan beliefs and pagan demons (Grendel, the dragon, the eotenas, the orcneas, etc.) exist, but alongside a Christianity which is somehow more True, or at least stands in opposition to it, Here, all of the furniture of AD&D would be as it is, but there would be some notion that it is set against an underlying theology which is of a different substance entirely - there is a God who is simply more good or indeed more powerful (for all that perhaps he refrains from acting, for mysterious reasons) than the rest. 

And second, it could give rise to a campaign style that would feel as though it has more at stake. Obviously, this would be true for people who are themselves religious believers. But I think it is also true for atheists and agnostics who come from a Christian cultural background. Long, long ago I wrote a post comparing HP Lovecraft and MR James. As I put it then, there is something about MR James's horror, which assumes a kind of default Christian backdrop to events, that gives it a much greater sense of immediacy and resonance than HP Lovecraft's entirely invented mythos:

James's universe is one where things make a kind of sense, even though he was expert in keeping things hidden. The ghosts, spirits, demons who his protagonists encounter are products of Christianity; it's a vicious, vengeful, Old Testament Christianity, where sins are punished rather than forgiven, and it's a Christianity which comes more from the Apocrypha (The Testament of Solomon, Knights Templar, medieval Jewish magic) than from the Bible, but it's still a universe people from the Western world are familiar with. It's in many ways a quid pro quo universe - you get what's coming to you - but more importantly it's one that's horribly familiar, especially if you have had a church upbringing. Words like Baphomet, Satan, King Solomon, hell, the afterlife, altar, pew, prayer book, etc., have meanings to us which extend beyond the immediate story or what the writer can conjur up, and reach into our shared Judeo-Christian cultural past. This gives them a sense of weight, a sense of meaning, that made-up words like Hastur do not. 
You don't have to be religious to appreciate that certain shared myths, stories and artefacts can take on a sense or feeling of the numinous, despite your own agnosticism: they get it not from the fact that they're true, or genuinely 'spiritual', but from something deeper - they've been around a long time, thousands of years in some cases, and when something is around a long time, it tends to grow roots. The Testament of Solomon is spellbinding because these are stories which have their roots in extreme antiquity, and something that old can't help but feel significant.

The point here is that one doesn't have to be a Christian to feel the viscerality of the notion that an orc or gnoll is a son of Cain rather than an evil humanoid - or indeed that a pit fiend is satanic rather than 'chaotic' or whatever else. One gets the concept of fighting a chaos demon; but one feels, in fighting a servant of Satan, that something weightier is going on. I think this would likely be truer across the piece, in a campaign setting which integrated Christian mythology (let's call it that for the sake of argument while sticking a pin in the question of metaphysics) in a more direct way.

Friday 1 December 2023

Best Books of 2023

The greatest of traditions have a timeless quality that allows us to imagine ourselves inhabiting an unbroken chain of custom that goes back into the mists of the ancient past. And so it is with Monsters & Manuals 'Best Books of...' lists, which each year are keenly awaited by small, ruddy-cheeked children up and down the land, so that they can refer to it when deciding what to put on their Christmas lists to St Nick.

This year, the recommendations will be as follows. I limiting myself here to five books, as is the tradition; according to Goodreads - where I religiously review every book I read - I read thirty-three books in total this year, which I think is less than usual. I went back and forth over whether to include Beowulf, literally the last thing I 'read', but technically I didn't read it (I listened) and it was the subject of my most recent blog entry anyway (and will be the subject also of the next). 

So, in no particular order, the top five are:

1. Who Framed Colin Wallace? by Paul Foot. This, an account of the trial for murder of a British serviceman who blew the whistle on a 'dirty tricks' campaign by MI5 in Northern Ireland, has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter of this blog, but I thought the book was a great read and highly recommend it. From my Goodreads review:

I was swept up in this tale, which is written in an utterly absorbing way and which successfully builds a meticulously researched and argued case that Wallace was framed. The account of his trial in itself is absolutely superb - indeed, it's difficult to imagine a better example of a detailed dissection of court-room procedure in all of non-fiction. The book is marred slightly by the author's evident biases, which at times lead one to question whether he can have viewed the evidence dispassionately. But even if one does not agree with its conclusions, it's impossible to put down.

2. The Knight and The Wizard by Gene Wolfe (okay - I suppose I lied when I said this list would contain five books). I wrote a series of posts (beginning here) on the blog about The Wizard Knight after reading the series, and probably bored the pants off my readership through repeated references to it thereafter, but the fact of the matter is that great books sometimes have that effect - and these are genuinely Great Books. From my Goodreads reviews:

(The Knight) I read this almost 20 years ago and liked it, but second time around it has grown immeasurably in the telling, possibly because a middle-aged man can see within it themes which a younger man ignores or rejects. It is very much a tale about men and manhood, and I suspect quite alienating to female readers as a result, but there's nothing really wrong with that (I've got no problem with books being written by women for women) - and what it has to say about the subject is extremely important, counter-cultural and profound. 

(The Wizard) I am thoroughly prepared to accept that the first Act of this novel is too long and at times tortuous. This probably means I should give it less than 5 stars. But in a way the difficulty of that section is almost worth it for the emotional payoff of what comes after. Wolfe here achieves that rarest of things in contemporary fiction: a genuinely happy ending (who has the guts to try to write one of those these days?) that is thoroughly convincing and satisfying. In this respect, it reminded me a lot of TH White's The Ill-Made Knight, to which it makes an excellent companion piece.

3. Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich. I am a huge fan of Alexievich's work but nothing could prepare me for the emotional body blow that comes from reading this book for the first time. Simply a retelling, in their own words, of the stories of people who had been children in the Soviet Union (chiefly Belarus) at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1941, it contains the full gamut of human experience across the spectrum - the depths of sorrow and despair, and the glory of hope and love, and all that lies between. An amazing, 'Best Books of a Lifetime" contender. From my Goodreads review:

The less said about some books the better, because they cannot be improved by another's words - only diminished. This is indeed the philosophy underlying all of Alexievich's work: that other people's stories must speak for themselves and could only be made worse by inserting the interviewer's perspective. This, in any case, is an unspeakably moving book - suffering on every page, but also survival and redemption. It made me understand the human condition better for having read it.

4. The Inheritors by William Golding. The short, terrible, horrifying, and disturbing tale of the meeting between a group of neanderthals and a group of homo sapiens, and of the passing away of one world and its replacement with the next. Somebody recommended in the comments to an entry on this blog that I should read this, and I'm very glad they did (it might even have been this guy); it changed my perspective on what fiction could be. From my Goodreads review:

A great novel will make you understand human nature better, and in a different way. This novel is very great, because it does this with stark purity by forcing us to confront humanity from the outside, as it would be perceived by minds that are not our own. This is an achievement that truly merits being labelled a work of genius. That it is also a work of great lyrical beauty and terrible tragedy makes that achievement more unlikely, and more impressive still.

5. Now We Are Six by A A Milne. Is this cheating? I suppose it might be cheating. But I deeply enjoyed the experience of reading the poems in this collection to my eldest child, over and over again, during the course of the year. To the adult ear there is something truly magical about the rhythms and cadences of Milne's; one rarely ever reads poetry nowadays, really, and when one does one tends to read pretentious and impenetrable stuff like Pablo Neruda or free verse like Raymond Carver. Milne set himself an altogether different task: picking a meter (sometimes quite a complex one), sticking strictly to it, and communicating clearly and effectively - and beautifully - while doing so. This is enough to inspire one to try it oneself. From my Goodreads review:

These poems must be read out loud (ideally to one's son or daughter) in order to appreciate the sonorous cadences of AA Milne's verse. Things have changed in the last 100 years; what was expected of the reader in terms of poetic literacy were much higher in 1927, and some of the rhyme structures and rhythms strike the modern ear as genuinely complex. This makes the book all the more useful in communicating to a child the beauty of the English language deployed well.


A funny year, in retrospect, in that I read almost no SF or fantasy (Gene Wolfe excepted, and unless you count The Inheritors), and read very few books that really had me properly hooked - I noted down quite a few two- and three-star reviews. But the ones that I loved, I really loved. 

Do feel free to leave your own lists in the comments - I can never have enough recommendations for good reading material.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

The Clan of Cain: Ogres, Elves, Evil Phantoms and Giants

I recently had the opportunity on a long drive to listen to Seamus Heaney reading his own translation of Beowulf from start to finish. It was a real treat, and I highly recommend it. I had read Beowulf before in other translations, but long ago, and the words are of course meant to be spoken rather than read; it is a much more powerful experience that way, especially (and strangely) when delivered in Heaney's decidedly un-Germanic Irish brogue. 

I was very struck by the poem's syncretism (more on this in future posts) and the way in particular Germanic myth and Old Testament legend are able to fit alongside one another almost seamlessly. Hence:

Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.

The idea that the creatures of Northern European myth were born from the murder of Abel by Cain is just too wonderful not to spur the imagination (as is the idea of giants literally fighting against God himself), and it would be incredible to me if no other RPG bloggers or writers have noticed it or done something with it. Nonetheless, it very much makes me want to do something with it - perhaps along the lines of the single class paladin campaign, with paladins conceptualised as warriors who specifically battle the 'clan of Cain' and protect humanity against them.

The interesting thing about the 'clan of Cain' - aside from the fact that it groups elves with the bad guys, which is always how I have thought elves work best - is the distinct division into four categories: ogres, elves, evil phantoms ('orcneas' in the original Old English, the only instance of the word appearing to our knowledge, and apparently thought by Old English scholars to be a compound of 'hell corpse') and giants. This is suggestive of four clear archetypes into which monstrous threats can be divided.

The easiest is the last: giants here are clearly meant to be genuinely huge giants capable of actually struggling with the almighty. (The Old English has 'gigantas', which speaks to me of something truly gigantic and also demigod-like, stemming as it does from an ultimately Greek source.) The vision I have is of titanic cthonic or celestial beings of immortal character and scale, rather than just a big person in the traditional D&D mode.

Another easy one is elves - understood as capricious and malevolent, or perhaps simply incapable of empathising with humanity. Not the elves of Tolkien but something more like the Aelf of The Wizard Knight who come in the night to steal babies or mislead travellers, and are of many different varieties. 

Then there are the 'evil phantoms', clearly simplest to understand as the undead, but perhaps also encompassing demonic and devilish spirits born from Hell or the Abyss (or, indeed, the dead brought back to life as demonic spirits). Here, I imagine everything from D&D-style zombies and skeletons all the way up to Lord Soth, and on the other hand the lemures, manes, pit fiends, succubi and so on that we tend to think of as 'demons' in the classical sense. It's all grouped under the orcneas category.

And finally we come to the most difficult category to define, the ogres. The original has 'eotonas', which obviously has a similar root to 'jotunn', but this conjures in the mind precisely the same kind of image as 'gigantas' - a demigodlike, supernatural figure of immense size and power. This is clearly the meaning of the word in the Eddas. Wikipedia provides us with the interesting information, however, that the word's root is the proto-Germanic word 'etunaz', which is connected with 'etanan' ('to eat'), and that from this were derived various Old Norse and Old English words connected with consumption, gluttony and greed. Could this make 'ogre' a catchall then for the type of creatures that we might traditionally think of as goblinish or orcish, and which make their living from catching and eating people? Or maybe even evil dwarves, acquisitive, avaricious and grasping - like perhaps the duergar or derro?

I like this basic idea of dividing threats into four categories, and one could even thereby subdivide paladins into four types, each specially equipped for taking on one of the monster types in particular: the giant-killer being especially difficult to kill and physically strong; the elf-killer being especially knowledgeable in/resistant to magic and charms; the phantom-killer being very good at smiting evil spirits; and the ogre-killer being very skilled in melee. This would allow some differentiation by archetype, even while maintaining the basic framework of the 'everything is paladins' motif. 

You could even call it The Clan of Cain

Monday 27 November 2023

The Sunday Seven: November 26th, 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Patrick Stuart's Gackling Moon kickstarter is live
  • I did not see the new(ish) Dungeons and Dragons film, but it seems a sequel is in the works: D&D is genuinely having a cultural moment
  • Settlers of a Dead God - an animal fantasy setting in which the PCs are anthropomorphic insects exploring the corpse of a gigantic dead god - intrigues me
  • Rapier versus Katana. Yes, they did it. (Years ago.) These comparison videos are always stupid - you would have to run the experiment 10,000 times with 10,000 different sets of competitors to get anything like convincing results - but still fun.
  • I find myself often linking to this blog, but Mythlands of Erce has some excellent stuff to say about the most underrated (least overrated?) edition of D&D
  • You will have seen Grognardia's post about the 10 Commandments of D&D, but I think it is worth flagging regardless
  • Napoleon is in the news a bit because of the new Ridley Scott film (which I will not watch); I very strongly recommend Andrew Roberts' Napoleon the Great, if you have not read it

Friday 24 November 2023

Ground Up Campaign Setting Building, Or: These Goblins Ride...

We tend to think of campaign settings in terms of grand design: the creation of a world, starting with a high concept and working from top, down. 

This is not, though, always or even usually how human creativity works; we just as often begin with the tiny seed of an idea and then gradually nurture it to prolific growth. George RR Martin, for example, started with a very simple image - a family with five children discovering five direwolves - and extrapolated A Song of Ice and Fire from there. Tolkien began The Hobbit simply by jotting down the opening line - 'In the hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' - in a flash of inspiration, and the rest followed (and, of course, his 'Leaf by Niggle' is a beautiful allegory for this mode of creation). I'm sure one could cite many more examples. 

It occurred to me today that if one were seeking inspiration one could do worse than creating a method for generating such small ideas. One such method would be the These Goblins Ride.... Table. The idea here is to begin the creation of a campaign region simply by imagining what mounts a group of goblins would be riding in a wilderness encounter. Viz:

These Goblins Ride... Table

Roll 1d10:

1- Ostriches

2 - Giant snakes

3 - Giant newts

4 - Reindeer

5 - Elephants

6 - Llamas

7 - Giant seagulls

8 - Buffalo

9 - Giant tortoises

10 - Giant anteaters

The idea here is that the mere act of imagining a set of goblins riding ostriches, or giant seagulls, or reindeer, immediately results in a mental picture giving rise to a chain of further images. Goblins riding reindeer to my mind's eye implies rolling tundra, dotted with patches of not-yet-melted snow and exposed hunks of black moraine; it implies nomadic tribes of humans on whom the goblins prey, and perhaps a great tent city where these tribes congregate to trade, marry, and make merry; it implies desolate hillsides of sheer scree in which can be seen from a distance dark caves; it implies glaciers riddled with tunnels; it implies roaming bands of quaggoths, yetis, and frost giants - and white or silver dragons lying in slumber beneath unnamed ranges of craggy mountains. 

Goblins riding anteaters, on the other hand, suggests to me something like the pampas - fertile grassland pulsating with life under a warm blue sky. It implies abandoned giant ant hills like towers or fortresses dotting the landscape, harbouring ghosts and demons; it implies anacondas and crocodiles lurking in myriad waterways; it implies armadillo-skinned orcs and elves with domesticated pumas; it implies human societies thriving on symbiotic coordination with tame giant ants; it implies thunderstorms that bring with them swarms of elemental spirits or demons of the air. 

I could go on. Clearly, one could easily extend this table both to include more rows but also to produce something more complicated and broad, so that instead of goblins one could generate a wide range of initial races and a wide range of mounts. But you get the idea in principle: when in doubt, just think, 'These goblins ride....what?'

Monday 20 November 2023

A Trap Has Been Placed Here to Kill Hornet-Women

I am currently finishing off my next big project - the Three Mile Tree megadungeon.

One of the entries in the key begins with the phrase contained in the title to this entry: 'A trap has been placed here to kill hornet-women.'

I know what the trap is. I want you to give me your ideas in the comments!

The Sunday Seven, 19th November 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • He has been coy about it, but Patrick Stuart's kickstarter for his next project, Gackling Moon, is in the works
  • The BBC World Service did a radio play of William Gibson's Neuromancer in 2002; it is available on YouTube here and it is truly surreal
  • My love for The Wizard Knight is known throughout the land; here is Gene Wolfe being interviewed about it
  • You probably know about this (I am behind the curve these days, in my fortress of solitude) but Palladium is running a Kickstarter for a 'redux version' of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness 
  • Simon Roper, an archaeologist, makes some fascinating videos about historical speech - here he is demonstrating what a South East English accent sounded like down the centuries
  • Here is Ingmar Bergman talking about his demons; I find the insecurities of people like this, who by anyone's measure can be said to have achieved greatness in their field, immensely reassuring
  • I don't know if you have come across this guy's extreme camping videos, but they are great inspiration for imagining what wilderness travel looks like and the kind of challenges PCs would experience crossing a hexmap 

Friday 17 November 2023

Worst Five Monsters

What defines a 'bad' monster? For me, it generally has at least one of these three qualities. First, it shatters verisimilitude by being either 'jokey' or just really hard to visualise or imagine. Second, it has some nuclear-grade special ability that can only really be avoided or circumvented by a successful saving throw rather than player intelligence. Third, it is just boring, usually because it is too much like a lot of other monsters, or because it has no obvious role beyond being a benevolent quest-dispenser or GMPC.

These qualities we can call, for shorthand, silliness, unfairness, and boringness. 

On this basis, I would say that the Worst Five MonstersTM in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual are:

5. Banshee. I am not averse to the concept of this monster in principle, as the concept of a banshee as it exists in folklore is deeply eerie and evocative. And actually the Monstrous Manual entry is nicely written and provides some good ideas for use of a banshee in a campaign region. But the monster itself is high in boringness (its role overlaps too much with that of the ghost or spectre) and unfairness (it gets to just show up, scream, and then everybody might die). 

4. Cloaker. The picture in the Monstrous Manual does this monster no favours, but it is intrinsically very high in silliness, both through shattering verisimilitude (try picturing a flying cloak with glowing red eyes attacking somebody in your mind's eye and tell me it doesn't immediately transform into a scene from a cartoon) and for having no obvious justification for its existence other than surprising adventurers. And then you have the fact that for some reason it can emit magical 'moans' of different intensities. Now try imagining that: a moaning, flying cloak with a face in the middle.

3. Faerie Dragon. I just think that the last thing that any D&D campaign needs is a creature which 'thrives on pranks, mischief and practical jokes'. Practical jokes are visual, for one thing, and are not funny when being verbally described, but the more important issue is that joke monsters are like campaign cul-de-sacs.  A random encounter with something which simply intends to 'wreak mischief on passers-by' provides no adventure hooks, nor danger, but simply acts as a distraction or speed-bump. The faerie dragon is therefore both silly AND boring.

2. Ki-rin. There are too many of this kind of monster in the Monstrous Manual, and they all bleed into one: couatls, lammasu, shedu, sphinxes...all of the same: flying benevolent sky dwellers who descend to the the world below to smite evil and help out the PCs (presumably on the basis of their taking part in some pre-ordained quest or mission). I am fully on board with the idea that there should be powerful good entities in the world if there are to be powerful evil ones, and that enterprising players should on discovery of their existence seek them out for aid, but there is too much of a duplication of roles her and too much of a stink of 'plot' about the ki-rin in particular. The boringness is off the charts. 

1. Sea Lion. Just stop it. 

Tuesday 14 November 2023

On Sympathy for the Young

In my last post, I linked to a Wired article which purports to be about a Ghibli-inspired D&D 5th edition setting, but which is really about the bigger issue of 'wholesomeness' and the need which young people nowadays seem to feel for media that is, for want of a better word, 'nicer' than what they are used to.

There was a time when I would have dismissed this is the whining of softies, and accused youngsters of wanting to be special snowflakes. But in recent years I have increasingly come around to the position that life simply is psychologically harder for young people nowadays than for previous generations (those born after, say, the 1950s), for all that it is materially more secure. I therefore have a lot of sympathy for the idea that we could probably do with a more wholesome media landscape in general than the one to which we have become accustomed. 

What, though, do I mean by life being psychologically harder? Really, there are three linked phenomena at work.

The first is I think obvious: smartphones. I am glad that there appears to be a head of steam now building towards more robust regulation of these devices, and that there is increasingly more recognition of what should have been evident all along - namely that the effect of smartphone use on the developing brain is nothing short of disastrous. But I still think we are at the very foothills of our understanding of the deleterious consequences of widespread smartphone use. My day job brings me into contact with hundreds of young people every year, and I increasingly see what I have witnessed over the past decade as something like a slow-motion apocalypse. People who are eighteen years old in 2023 are almost a different species to people who were eighteen years old in 2012, and they bear the countenance of people who have been mentally scarred by the mere process of growing up. It's not their fault: they have been subjected to what can only really be thought of as relentless psychological assault, driven by a technology which is designed to be addictive in a way that puts crack cocaine to shame (all the while going through what everyone knows to already be the toughest period of life - the teenage years). It is desperately sad, and I think in ten or twenty years' time parents will have a lot of apologising to do to their children for allowing all of this sorrow to be caused under their watch. (I direct your attention in particular to this recent article for a very interesting and lucid analysis of a central aspect of the phenomenon, which is the problem of loneliness and involuntary celibacy.)

The second is also evident to most thoughtful people, and it is the fact that the world has simply become a lot less social, and a lot 'colder', over the past thirty or so years. Technology has obviously facilitated this. But whatever the cause, the texture of life has fundamentally and drastically altered. One should not look back on the past with those famous rose-tinted glasses, but there were many ways in which life was simply more communal, more supportive, and more forgiving than it is now. I grew up in humble circumstances in one of the poorest regions of the UK, but there were lots of compensatory factors that made life cheerful - kids playing in the street, neighbours looking out for each other and lending each other money where needed, community groups and clubs, religious meetings, pubs and newsagents on almost every street corner, big family gatherings. The importance of this dense web of sociality has radically diminished in my lifetime, and for young people in particular things have become as a consequence just a little bit, well, shit. They have fewer opportunities to develop, fewer opportunities to make friends, fewer opportunities to meet romantic partners in a natural way, and fewer opportunities to mix with people from different generations. All of this adds up to a feeling of being largely alone against a cold and unfriendly world (with only fake online sociality to compensate).

The third is more diffuse, but I think perhaps the most important of all, and it is the spiritual consequence of feeling as thought there is not a great deal of purpose to being alive. Most young people nowadays leads lives of comfort that previous generations could not have imagined. And vast swathes of them are able to postpone the transition to adulthood almost indefinitely with university, postgraduate study, extended periods of living at home. This is in one sense an astonishing privilege, but it is also a curse. Part of what makes life feel as though it is worth living is the sense that what one does matters. One gets this sense, very keenly, when one has to lead an independent life as a productive contributor to society - paying the bills, raising a family, doing a good job at work. One does not get it from studying something vaguely interesting for year after year (unless one is very academically gifted) or from living at home with Mum and Dad and temping. In short, young people now grow up in an atmosphere almost of enforced listlessness. And this saps the soul in a way that people of my generation (who were generally expected to stand on their own two feet from the age of eighteen) cannot quite imagine.

I do not wish to misinterpreted: life was materially very hard for my family when I was a kid, and is still materially very hard for very many people even in purportedly wealthy societies like Britain's. Life is materially much harder still in the developing world. And life was also undoubtedly psychologically harder in many ways for certain categories of people in previous generations - soldiers who had fought in war, gay people who were relentlessly bullied, and so on. But I'm not sure that previous generations ever had to deal with this strange malaise that has set itself like a pall over the lives of our current youth, and which seems almost purposively designed to direct their energies only to the most soul-crushing aspects of life: consumerism, light entertainment, pornography, the self. 

What is to be done about this is beyond my pay grade. But facilitating people getting together with their mates and enjoying a wholesome pastime together to my eye seems like one of the most important contributions that anybody can make by way of a remedy or palliative. It at least might be a bit of an antidote to the unrelenting sordidness that the internet has become. And in that sense, I wish Obojima the very best of luck.